The Marine Corps’ new operational concept, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), has largely been well received by the defense community. Devised with China in mind, EABO is designed to significantly enhance the Marine Corps’ ability to contribute to the U.S. Navy’s sea-control/sea-denial capabilities in the Western Pacific. These operations, intended to be carried out by the Marine Corps’ newly formed Marine Littoral Regiments, seek to “further distribute lethality by providing land-based options for increasing the number of sensors and shooters beyond the upper limit imposed by the quantity of seagoing platforms available” by “employing mobile, relatively low-cost capabilities in austere, temporary locations forward as integral elements of fleet/FMCC [Force Movement Control Center] operations.” A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report depicts EABO as “having reinforced-platoon-sized Marine Corps units maneuver around the theater, moving from island to island, to fire anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and perform other missions so as to contribute…to U.S. operations to counter and deny sea control to Chinese forces.”
However, EABO presents significant logistical challenges for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. The United States’ current inventory of amphibious ships and aircraft are too “expensive and exquisite” to survive within China’s increasingly lethal anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) umbrella. In his 2019 “Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” Commandant of the Marine Corps David Berger called for the Marines to “seek the affordable and plentiful” when structuring the service’s future amphibious forces, declaring that “rather than heavily invest in expensive and exquisite capabilities that regional aggressors have optimized their forces to target, naval forces will persist forward with many smaller, low signature, affordable platforms.” This article briefly reviews six potential options for developing “affordable and plentiful” platforms to reduce the logistical burden posed by EABO.
Light Amphibious Warship
One option the navy is pursuing is the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) program. LAW ships are designed to “support the movement of Marine Littoral Regiments moving quickly from one piece of land to the next to conduct missions under the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept.” LAWs would offer a cheaper and more survivable amphibious capability than the navy’s current fleet of large amphibious ships. LAWs would be significantly smaller than current amphibious ships and possess a maximum draft of 12 feet, allowing the ships to transit shallow waters. A recent Congressional Research Service report notes that the Navy envisions the program costing roughly $100 million or less per ship, compared to the estimated $1.2 to $2.0 billion cost of the navy’s most recently procured amphibious ship, the LPD-17 Flight II. Lt. Gen Eric Smith, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, recently stated in an interview with USNI News that the LAW “is a smaller version of a traditional amphib but much more able to hide in plain sight, much more affordable, much more numerous because of its cost.” The CRS report states that the navy is seeking to procure 28-30 LAW ships.
Next-Generation Medium Amphibious Ship
The navy and marine corps’ fiscal year 2021 budget request included a call to spend $30 million to research the development of a “next-generation medium amphibious ship design,” that can “support the kind of dispersed, agile, constantly relocating force described in the…Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept.” The navy and marine corps characterize the ship as a “stern landing vessel to support amphibious ship-to-shore operations.” USNI News reports that possible templates for the ship include the Offshore Support Vessel as well as a stern landing vessel produced by Australian company Sea Transport. The navy and marine corps have not yet committed to either design.
Next-Generation Medium Logistics Ship
The navy’s fiscal year 2021 budget request also called for $30 million in research and development funding for a “next-generation medium logistics ship” (NGLS). The navy announced that “the NGLS will enable refueling, rearming, and resupply of naval assets – afloat and ashore – in support of…Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.” The service has yet to settle on a design for the NGLS, and is considering “conversion of existing vessels, new construction, or a combination of conversions and new construction in order to acquire the required number of Next Generation Logistics Ships.” The navy has not indicated how many vessels it seeks to purchase nor has it publicly released technical requirements for the ship.
Forward Deployed Additive Manufacturing
Another option is embedding additive manufacturing capability within EABO units. Additive manufacturing could reduce the marine corps’ logistical burden by allowing forward deployed units to rapidly build spare/replacement parts on the battlefield. In 2017, the marine corps built an expeditionary fabrication lab dubbed the “X-Fab,” a 20-by-20 foot shelter that comes equipped with “four 3-D printers, a scanner and computer-aided design software system to enable rapid parts manufacturing.” Deployable at the battalion level for maintenance units, X-Fab enables a machinist to “scan a part and then run the scan through a software system that recreates the design of the part and then prints the part out in polymer material from a 3-D printer.” EABO will likely require an additive manufacturing capability that is deployable at the platoon level. However, X-Fab may be an important first step toward developing additive manufacturing capability that can be deployed by smaller EABO units operating in austere locations.
Semi-Submersible, Low Profile Vessels
Another option, dubbed “Cocaine Logistics” in a recent War on the Rocks article, calls for the marine corps to build manned, semi-submersible, low-profile vessels akin to narco-submarines used by drug traffickers to supply forward deployed units. Noting that narco-submarines “evade detection by staying almost entirely underwater, trading speed for semi-submerged invisibility,” the article argues that “low-profile vessels that are purpose-built for delivering logistics material would be a cheap and expendable logistics platform for the Navy and Marine Corps, and easy to mass-produce.” The vessels are estimated to cost between $1 and $3 million per unit and could carry 1,000 to 3,000 tons of critical supplies including fuel and munitions to austere expeditionary advanced bases. While “narco-submarines” would not be able solve all of EABO’s logistical challenges, they certainly meet Commandant Berger’s requirement for “affordable and plentiful” amphibious platforms.
Another recent article, written by David Alman, contends that seaplanes could reduce the logistical strain of EABO. Though the navy hasn’t operated a seaplane since the 1960s, Alman argues that a new class of seaplanes would be well suited to support EABO. He asserts that seaplanes are highly survivable, stating that their “ability to operate from any body of water vastly complicates any enemy attempts to find or target them.” Their ability to operate on water also renders seaplanes uniquely suited to provide logistical support to austere islands that lack traditional runways. Alman notes that their ability “to offload payloads directly onto a beach potentially removes the need for heavy equipment to transport missile batteries away from a landing strip.” Seaplanes can also travel relatively far distances and carry a significant amount of cargo. As an example, the 1950s era R3Y Tradewind “could carry a 50,000-pound cargo payload out to 1,000 miles.” Additionally, Alman asserts that seaplanes could provide in-theater transportation for EABO units, arguing that they “could land a small platoon of Marines and a missile battery on the beach of a small, remote island… and continue to reposition… those forces.”
Overcoming the logistical challenges posed by EABO will be a difficult, but not impossible, task. It is a promising sign that the navy and marine corps are already undertaking efforts to build new classes of amphibious and logistic vessels that are more survivable and cost effective than their predecessors. However, it may be necessary for the navy and marine corps to also embrace less traditional ideas, like “cocaine logistics” and the return of the seaplane, in order to truly make EABO logistically viable.
Alec Blivas previously worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.